Target Letter

What Does It Mean to Receive a Federal Target Letter?

A target letter is how a federal law enforcement agency informs you that you are a “target” for criminal prosecution.  Simply put, the federal prosecutor believes that you have committed a crime.

Often, this letter could be received after you had an interview with federal agents, or it could be received entirely unexpectedly. Target letters are frequently used in white-collar or fraud cases and are generally the first sign you are under an investigation.

Target Letter from the Federal Government
A federal target letter is a notice from the DOJ that you are a target of a criminal investigation.

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) defines a “target” as a defendant against whom there is substantial evidence. Target letters notify someone about several things, such as their status as a target in a federal grand jury investigation or the crimes they are suspected of committing.

The letter will also inform them of their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and will contain information about obtaining court-appointed counsel. 

Further, recipients will be warned about the destruction of evidence, which could be considered an obstruction of justice. Often, they are asked to contact the federal prosecutor to discuss the matter.

Simply put, a target letter is how the federal government informs you that you are a target for criminal prosecution and prosecutors believe you have committed a crime.

The government is not required to send target letters, and most people are indicted without receiving one. Also, just because you may have received a target letter does not always mean you will be indicted, but the chances are high. 

What is a Target Letter?

When a federal law enforcement agency investigates possible criminal activity, it might collect evidence and present it to a federal prosecutor, who might issue a target letter to the individual under investigation. Some of the typical federal agencies include the following:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI),
  • Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA),
  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) defines a target as “a person whom the prosecutor or the grand jury has substantial evidence linking them to the commission of a crime and who, in the judgment of the prosecutor, is a putative defendant.”

In other words, the federal government has reason to believe you were involved in committing some federal offense. Target letters often ask you to meet with the Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) assigned to the case. 

Target letters are written notifications informing someone they are the subject of a federal investigation.  Federal investigators will place people into different categories when they are conducting a criminal investigation, such as the following:

  • witness is someone they believe could provide them with information about a suspected crime.
  • The subject is someone they believe may have participated in a crime, but it needs further investigation.
  • The target is the prominent person prosecutors have gathered substantial evidence against and believe they were involved in a crime.

Notably, a target letter is not an indictment or formal criminal charge but a preliminary step in the investigation process. It does not guarantee an indictment.

What Does a Target Letter Say?

Depending on the federal case details, the target letter can say different things, such as the following:  

  • You're status as a target in a federal grand jury investigation,
  • The offense you are suspected of committing,
  • A warning about the destruction of evidence that could lead to obstruction of justice charges,
  • Your legal right to assert the Fifth Amendment to remain silent,
  • How to obtain a court-appointed defense lawyer,
  • You might be encouraged to contact the prosecutor to discuss it.

What Does It Mean to Receive a Target Letter?

Suppose you receive a target letter. In that case, it means you are under federal investigation, prosecutors believe there is significant evidence against you, and there is a high probability of an indictment.  

As noted, target letters typically describe the alleged criminal behavior and the specific federal statutes you may have violated. 

You will usually be asked to contact the United States Attorney's Office for an interview and would have the option of having a lawyer present with you. Target letters often request that you act, such as providing testimony to a Grand Jury.

Why Are Target Letters Sent?

If you are the target of a federal investigation, there is no requirement to notify you. Many people never know they were a suspect until they are indicted. A federal prosecutor has many different reasons for sending a target letter, such as the following, 

  • To gather more information,
  • To remove you from the target list,
  • To encourage a plea agreement,
  • A common courtesy,
  • To give you time to prepare a defense. 

What Should You Do If You Receive a Target Letter?

The following steps could be crucial to the case's outcome if you receive a target letter from the federal government. For the best chance of a favorable outcome, you should take the following steps:

  • Immediately consult with a federal criminal defense attorney.
  • Always follow the legal advice of your lawyer.
  • Do not ignore the target letter or delay in acting.
  • Do not talk to federal law enforcement agents.
  • Do not discuss the details with anyone except your lawyer.
  • Preserve all relevant documents related to the case.
  • Do not tamper with or destroy relevant documents.
  • Do not contact potential witnesses in the case.
  • Prepare for a grand jury subpoena or further investigation.

Retaining a federal criminal defense lawyer early in the case process will give you the best chance of a favorable outcome. Perhaps your lawyer can negotiate with the prosecutor and avoid the formal filing of charges.

Target Letter
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If a federal indictment is inevitable, your defense attorney could start to gather discovery and evaluate the evidence to build a defense strategy. Perhaps a pre-indictment plea agreement could be reached with the prosecution. 

Sometimes, even when the grand jury has already returned an indictment, there are still opportunities for negotiation with federal charges.

Criminal cases are often complex, and the federal government has ample resources to investigate and pursue a conviction. Federal prosecutors usually are highly experienced. Our defense lawyers can guide you through every federal criminal justice system step. 

You can contact us for a free case evaluation by phone or via the contact form. The Hedding Law Firm is based in Los Angeles, CA.

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